Zombie Technology: Old Tech Rises from the Heap

Posted on August 1, 2012


While the global warming debate may be cooling, other arguments continue to rage over fundamental changes across another landscape: technology. The opposing sides might be framed as Luddites vs. LinkedIn, squares vs. Foursquare, or textbook vs. Facebook. Whatever the arguments regarding advancements in technology, they all reflect a common question: will new technology and processes make conventional devices and methods obsolete—and, if so, how quickly?

The correct answer may not be as obvious as it seems. Exactly the same foundation for debate erupted with the invention of television. Pundits may have subsequently declared the death of radio; but radio adapted, found its appropriate new niche, and continued to flourish as a local—rather than network— medium. Surely VCRs, then DVDs, then HDTV would bring down the curtain on movie houses and the big studios.  Moviemakers, however, met the challenge, this time by partnering with purveyors of the new technology, while theaters created amenities—from Dolby sound systems to dinner at your seat—that continue to offer reasons for patrons to buy a ticket.

Exceptions exist, certainly: digital cameras pretty much killed film, although not photography. GPS has replaced the road atlas on the front seat. Nevertheless, the lesson to be learned is not to bury convention until you’ve checked its pulse. Zombie-like, it may rise again on its feet, though looking and sounding a little different, and thrive right alongside the tech that seemed destined to demolish it.

Here are four stories to watch as they unfold, to see if they wind up with predictable plots or surprise endings:

  1. Paper books vs. e-books. While bookstores slammed shut in rapid succession as e-books gathered an e-ager readership, the hardback and paperback formats still remain popular, through online purchases and outlets like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. As booksellers right-size their pricing (often through heavy discounting) for today’s online audience, watch for consumers to begin re-appreciating the value of a book they can flip open instead of boot up; read on the taxiway; and easily share with others thanks to a simple, common format.
  2. Mobile phones vs. landlines. If any prediction about technology’s progress seems guaranteed, it’s that mobile phones will replace traditional landline devices. The old “telco,” however, has transformed to such an extent that consumers may have second thoughts before tossing their cordless phone sets into the recycle bin. VoIP-based landlines most often are bundled into packages with Internet and cable service, so their cost is minimal compared to the massive bills that mobile users sometimes run up, even with unlimited calling plans. As wireless companies begin expanding their shared-data-plan concept, the price to play with mobile devices will become even higher. Meanwhile, the affordable home phone offers unbeatable reliability and reception (still a mobile bugaboo in many communities). Additionally, as telecommuting continues to expand, employees likely will place higher value on the clarity of their home landlines over their mobile devices (which generally are purchased for their ancillary functions, rather than their voice quality).
  3. Mobile video vs. in-home screens. Increasingly, Millennials are relying on their mobile phones to view downloadable and live TV and movies because they like the convenience of being able to tune into breaking news, short entertainment sessions and episodes when they are on the go. But they, along with Gen Xers and Boomers, still turn to TV sets or laptops to enjoy and share long-form broadcasts and movies. Rather than being replaced by mobile devices, TV set-top boxes, laptops, tablets and smartphones all will be networked together in a “TV Everywhere” environment in which the same show can be viewed on any and all devices and transferred seamlessly among them.
  4. Hybrid vehicles vs. internal combustion. Every major auto company now offers a line of hybrids, but the market jury is still out on their popularity. A 2011 study found that only 35 percent of hybrid owners chose to buy a hybrid again when they returned to the market. Meanwhile, a revitalized American auto industry has been finding new ways to build internal combustion engines that offer fuel savings nearly equal to those of many hybrids. Furthermore, while conventional wisdom shifted toward support of the electric car, charging times and additional emissions at the power plant have tempered electricity’s attractiveness. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are about to make their own splash, so it may not yet be the time to go all in with today’s hybrids but rather take advantage of the new technology on more conventional drive-trains.

So the second lesson to be learned, perhaps, is to evaluate the adaptability of the entire market when preparing for the next wave of technology; “legacy” devices may ultimately have a leg up on their successors.